Q. In 2 Cor 12:2, Paul reports being caught up to the third heaven. Where are the other two and what scripture references are there?
A. You won’t find this specifically pointed out in the Bible, but in Greek thinking the 1st Heaven was our atmosphere, where the clouds are. The second heaven was what we would call outer space where the other planets and stars are, and the third heaven is the location of the throne of God. In Paul’s day this was also called paradise (2 Cor. 12:4) although before the resurrection heaven and paradise were considered as two different locations.
Until Jesus sprinkled His blood on the altar in heaven to complete His duties as our High Priest (Hebrews 9:11-12), heaven was off limits to humanity. Instead, everyone went to a place called Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek. It had two divisions, one for believers and one for unbelievers. For believers it was a place of comfort, called paradise by Greeks and Abraham’s side by Jews. For unbelievers it was a place of torment. You can read a vivid description of this in Luke 16:19-31.
On the day they both died, Jesus told the thief who asked to be remembered that they would go to paradise that very day (Luke 24:42-43). After His resurrection He took everyone from paradise to heaven (Ephesians 4:8) and that’s probably what prompted the two places to become synonymous in early Church thinking.